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Life as Performance Art

Fifty years NBC television began broadcasting “Little House on the Prairie” based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of young reader novels of the same name.
Some of us of a certain age practically grew up reading her stories of growing up in the upper Midwest during pioneer days. They are still in print and loved by many children.
Today those stories are often accompanied by trigger warnings because some of the language is out of date, there are tinges of racism, ageism, sexism and more. Among issues are that cultural conflicts receive scant attention and Native Americans living in the region are hardly mentioned. 
In short, critics are trying to apply their beliefs on stories committed to paper 80+ years ago. Some contend Wilder and her daughter Rose Lane were early libertarians opposed to what they believed was government overreach by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. 
Fine. They still are good children’s stories.
Wilder’s father moved their family to Wisconsin, southwestern Minnesota, South Dakota and eventually Missouri. The stories were inspired by her experiences then.
One story, “Farmer Boy,” tells of her husband’s boyhood days in upstate New York. They based on the era’s essence, not academic texts.
Wilder didn’t set out to be a novelist. She started her professional career as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and eventually became a columnist for a local paper. There, under the not-always-benign instruction of her editor, she learned her craft.  
Her first story, written in 1911, was published by Ruralist magazine, and in due course she became a permanent writer, then editor.
The novels, which came later, have a universal appeal because they tell the semi-historical saga of pioneers in the 1800s. Theirs was a life of incredibly hard work, privations, challenges and perseverance.  They awaken our imagination and awe.
Children read her books for the story; adults are inspired by them in other ways.  “Well, if they could do that,” we think, “I can keep going, too.” Wilder believed Americans needed to embrace that sense of perseverance during the Great Depression.
In much the same way, my uncle kept a print depicting pioneers traveling west through the Great American Desert as it was then called.
It wasn’t a heroic painting of great Conestoga wagon trains, but of two smaller wagons, each pulled by a pair of mules. 
He kept it on the wall opposite his desk in the bank during until his death in 1950. During some of the most challenging years, he would stand in front of the painting, look at it and with determination go back to work to help customers who trusted him to get them through tough times.
Early settlers of southwest Michigan faced similar hardships. There were trees to cut down, stumps to uproot, fields to plant, homes and wells to build.
 They had to deal with local bankers, some of whom were tied to big banks along the east coast, inflation and depression, railroads free to set their own rates, national economic downturns because of land speculators, weather, insects, huge flocks of passenger pigeons that could destroy a crop in hours, wildfires, blizzards and more.
Not all succeeded. There was no government-provided safety net for anyone until the 1930s. Some died from exhaustion, hunger, epidemics or accidents. Others were injured as they worked.  
Some, realizing they weren’t cut out for that sort of life, decided to sell out and go back east.
Others stayed, and for that all of us have benefited. We stand on the shoulders of giants that way.
When my third-grade teacher read one chapter of “Little House” to our class each day, we could visualize the big forests, log cabins and much more. We talked about what it would be like to live in a cabin in the winter in the north country, or what we’d have done had a mouse spent the night sleeping in our beard, as Wilder told in her book.
About halfway through the series, our class went on a field trip to the local museum. Just outside the front door was the Dee Cabin, built in the 1850s, preserved for generations and an example of pioneer life.
There was one small room where the entire family lived, cooked, ate and slept. The stories and cabin brought into sharp focus the reality of pioneer life.
It inspired many of us to take a deeper interest in history, perhaps making it “our-story.” It was not just about the exhibits and artifacts, but the lessons of hard work, perseverance and the drive to succeed.

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